A Biography of Playwright Susan Glaspell

'The First Lady of American Drama'

Playwirght Susan Glaspell at work.

 New York Public Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Born in 1876, Susan Glaspell is mainly known in literary circles, and it is for her stage play "Trifles" and her short story of the same plot, "A Jury of Her Peers." Both works were inspired by her experiences as a courtroom reporter during a murder trial in 1900.

Despite "Trifles" being now part of literary anthologies, Gladwell hasn't received wide recognition since her death in 1948. Yet, in her time, she was a prolific artist—heavily recognized by literary critics and reprinted myriad times, even abroad in England. She was a journalist, an actress and mainly, she wrote many successful novels, short stories, and plays.

Unfortunately, critics in the second half of the 20th century perceived her as too feminist and too daring, and she became forgotten. However, since the early 21st century, scholars became more interested in female writers again and her body of work was rediscovered. Some of her unpublished work came to light and her plays are becoming staged more and more frequently.

Early Life as a Writer

Susan Glaspell was born in Iowa and raised by a conservative family with a modest income. Even though she didn't internalize the conservative attitudes of her small town, she was influenced by their living in proximity to Native Americans.

Even though it was rather frowned upon for women to go to college, Glaspell receiving a degree from Drake University and was thought of as a leader among her peers. Immediately upon her graduation, she became a reporter for the Des Moines News. It is during this time that she covered the murder case that later inspired "Trifles" and "A Jury of Her Peers."

Susan worked as a reporter for less than two years before quitting her job abruptly (after the said murder case) to focus on her creative writing. As such, her first three novels, "The Glory of the Conquered," "The Visioning," and "Fidelity," published while Glaspell was in her 30s, were received with high praise.

The Provincetown Players

While living and writing in Iowa, Glaspell met George Cram Cook, the man who would become her husband. Cook was second time married at the time and despite his longing for a rural, commune lifestyle, the judgmental small-town society forced them to move to New York City.

What drew Glaspell and Cook together was also their need to rebel from their conservative upbringing. They met in a socialist society and both became part of the Davenport Group—a modernist group of writers who, just like the European modernists, strove to break from tradition, looking for new ways of tackling problems of a world that wasn't making much sense.

When the newly married couple settled in Greenwich Village, they became the creative force behind a new, avant-guard, style of American theater. Glaspell also became part of Heterodoxy—an early feminist group the goal of which was to question orthodox views on sexuality, politics, philosophy, and religion.

In 1916 Glaspell and Cook, along with a group of writers, actors, and artists, co-founded the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod. It was a "creative collective," a space for experimentation with modernism, realism, and satire, away from mainstream Broadway. It was during these years that Glaspell, when looking for new talent, discovered now immensely famous playwright Eugene O'Neill.

During her time in Cape Cod, Gladwell's plays became very popular—critics compared her with Henrik Ibsen and ranked above O'Neill. Similarly, her short stories were readily accepted by the publishers and are considered to be some of her best work.

Eventually, the Provincetown Players gained too much fame and economic success which, according to Cook, were against the original premise of the collective, and led to disagreements and disenchantment. Glaspell and her husband left the Players and traveled to Greece in 1922. Cook, shortly after achieving his life long dream to become a shepherd, died two years later.

Life After Cook

Glaspell returned to America with their children in 1924 and continued to write. She published a tribute to her late husband and multiple novels that were again met with high recognition. Her novel "Brook Evans" was on a best-seller list along with novels of such grandeur as Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms." It was also republished in England and later made into a movie.

In 1931, when Glaspell was in her 50s, she received a Pulitzer Prize for her play "Alison's House," based on the life of Emily Dickinson.

During the Great Depression, as a result of her work with The Provincetown Players, Gladwell worked as a Midwest Bureau Director of the Federal Theater Project. Her stay there didn't last long, as the heavy censorship, constantly clashing with her convictions, forced her to return to Provincetown. There she wrote another set of complex and interesting novels.

The Origin of 'Trifles'

"Trifles" is currently Glaspell's most popular play. Like other works of early feminist writing, it was rediscovered and embraced by the academic community only in the beginning of the 21st century.

One of the reasons for this short play's enduring success is that it is not only an insightful commentary on the different perceptions of each gender, but it's also a compelling crime drama that leaves audiences discussing what happened and whether or not the characters acted unjustly.

While working as a journalist for the Des Moines Daily News, Susan Glaspell covered the arrest and trial of Margaret Hossack who was accused of murdering her husband. According to a summary by "True Crime: An American Anthology:"

"Sometime around midnight on December 1, 1900 John Hossack, a well-to-do, 59-year-old Iowa farmer, was attacked in bed by an axe wielding assailant who literally beat out his brains as he slept. His wife became the prime suspect after neighbors testified to her long-simmering hatred of her abusive spouse."

The Hossack case, much like the fictionalized case of Mrs. Wright in "Trifles," became a hotbed of debate. Many people sympathized with her, seeing her as a victim in an abusive relationship. Others doubted her claims of abuse, perhaps focusing on the fact that she never confessed, always claiming that an unknown intruder was responsible for the murder. Mrs. Hossack was found guilty, but a year later her conviction was overturned. The second trial resulted in a hung jury and she was set free.

Plot Summary of 'Trifles'

Farmer John Wright has been murdered. While he lay asleep in the middle of the night, someone strung a rope around his neck. And that someone might have been his wife, the quiet and forlorn Minnie Wright.

The play opens with the sheriff, his wife, the county attorney, and the neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Hale, entering the kitchen of the Wright household. While the men search for clues upstairs and in other parts of the house, the women notice important details in the kitchen that reveal the emotional turmoil of Mrs. Wright.

They realize that John killed Minnie's canary bird, and so she, in turn, killed him. The women put the pieces together and realized Minnie was abused by her husband, and since they understand what it is like to be oppressed by men, they hide the evidence, and she is let free.

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